Author Topic: Vus Vet Zayn?  (Read 1312 times)

Lord J Esq

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Vus Vet Zayn?
« on: November 05, 2005, 01:23:06 am »
Josh is good for more than crass politics... I wrote this for another audience, but figured it might be well-taken here too. Now's your rare chance to glimpse a page in the Book of J.

~~~~~
Today is the tenth anniversary of two rather remarkable events in the grand scheme of things, not entirely unrelated. First, ten years ago today was the day that Israeli Prime Minister Yitzhak Rabin was assassinated by an ultranationalist right-wing Jew who opposed Rabin’s efforts to make peace with the Palestinians by giving away Israeli land. Second, ten years ago today was my Bar Mitzvah. Yes, religion touches us all; you’ll find it everywhere: Even in the life and times of Lord Josh, Esquire.

Imagine, if you will, back into the sepia-tinted annals of history. The year was 1995. Nickelodeon became America’s top-rated cable network. The World Trade Organization was established. O.J. Simpson went on trial, guaranteeing nine months of obsessive-compulsive news coverage. Seamus Heaney won the Nobel Prize in Literature. The Murrah Federal Building in Oklahoma was bombed by a homegrown American terrorist. Jacques Chirac became president of France. The Nasdaq stock index passed 1000 for the first time. Windows 95 changed the face of personal computing. Bill Clinton abolished the 55 mph federal speed limit. Bill Waterston published the last original Calvin and Hobbes strip. And, fo’ sho’, Boyz II Men was tearing up the charts.

But there was another boy becoming a man that year. In Jewish tradition, when a child reaches the age of thirteen—or twelve if she is a girl—he or she is deemed an adult under Jewish law, and is therefore worthy to lead the congregation in prayer for the first time. It is a coming of age rite known as the B’nai Mitzvah, where one becomes a “Child of the Commandment.” And on that day, it was my turn.

Our congregation was a small little flock out in the desert wastes of California. There were only one hundred members or so…one hundred fifty at the most. A typical Shabbat service consisted maybe of twenty people, but on that Saturday nearly the entire congregation turned out, as well as some rarely-seen family members, all there to see me have my big day. For as shy as I was, going up before 130 people as the sole focus of attention was no small ordeal. But I had friends who had gone before me, and more who would follow in my footsteps. I felt excited more than anything else.

The turnout was huge…nothing turns ‘em out like a B’nai Mitzvah. I’d been attending services since I was a little boy. I knew all the prayers, all the songs. I had studied my Torah and Haf’Torah portions to the letter. I’d written my sermon. I had my own prayer garb. Everything was set to go. The video recorder got going, my parents, sister, and a couple of half-brothers took their seats up front, the kosher wine went on ice, and I got up there with the Rabbi, Jim Brandt—one of the best our congregation had ever had, but a horrible singer—and I did my thing! What it is like for a little kid to have an experience like that? I don’t know, to be honest. I can only speak for myself. If you have to ask, you’ll never know.

For the first few minutes I was ice-cold scared. But I guess that’s a part of growing up. You have experiences that expand your horizons and push you outside of your comfort zone. That was my day. The terror wore off, and by the time we rose for the first of the holy prayers, I was at peace with the world. From there on out, it was all rote…plus whatever personal savoring of the occasion I could muster. You might even say I had a good time, right then and there. Tough experiences are seldom enjoyable at the time, and while they certainly made for some good memories, it’s really a special occasion indeed when you can be right there, on the spot, and appreciate it even a little…especially when you’re so young.

I completed the main portion of the service, then read from the Torah, and then the Haf’Torah. That was the hardest part. Even with the vowels, my chanting was pretty flat and it was rough-going. I hadn’t practiced the Haf’Torah portion nearly as well as the Torah portion. But I made it through, with a cold sweat, and after that it was smooth sailing. The place fell silent, and I gave my traditional discussion of the Torah that I had read. My portion was “Lech Lecha,” the story of Abraham being told by God to leave his native land and journey to a land he did not know. I still have the original, typewritten copy of that speech, in a box sitting in the closet. I wrote it myself—I always liked to write. It wasn’t bad…for a thirteen-year-old.

Then I got pelted with soft candy, as per our synagogue’s now defunct tradition. (Someone used hard candy a couple of years later. You don’t throw hard candy at an ark surrounded by stained glass.) After the Torah services, I led us into the concluding prayers. While my dad was leading the congregation in those, I had a special private counsel on the bimah (the stage) with the Rabbi. I’d be lying if I told you I remember what he said…even a single word of it. But I’m sure it was very inspiring…because look how I turned out! =P

After that, we said the Kaddish—the prayer for those who have died—and finally I led the congregation in my favorite closing song: “Ein Keloheinu.” Then the service was over. But the party was just beginning: We had wine and broke bread, and then, as is the tradition worldwide, a mighty feast ensued! Judaism is infamous for its feasts and ritual love of celebration. Suffice it to say, it was one neat little reception I had. Golly! I even got the DJ to play “Earth Angel.” He asked me if I was dedicating it to anyone, and I think I blushed and told him no. Kids get embarrassed about the stupidest things, and I didn’t have the guts to tell him that I liked the song because I had heard it in Back to the Future.

What a morning that was…and the night before, and the afternoon following. I owe the whole thing to my dad. He made it happen. When you’re a kid, you’re told to do things that don’t always make sense to you, because “parents know better.” And if you have good influences in your life, and turn out to be an okay person, someday you’ll understand what they were trying to do. Honest to goodness, there’s no lump in my throat, but my eyes are a bit watery just thinking of it. My dad is a great guy. If you ever have kids…give ‘em the very best you have.

Legend has it outside the religion that a B’nai Mitzvah is like Christmas times infinity for presents and gifts. I’m hear to tell you…it’s all true! Because my extended family is so dispersed, few of them attended, but I got gifts from family I’d never met from all over the country, as well as gifts from throughout the congregation. Among the more interesting gifts I received was a coffee table trophy book, thicker than a phone book, about the Civil War. More usefully, I got a talking alarm clock that is sitting at my left hand even now, ten years later. These days it’s showing its age with worn-out buttons, but the cackling rooster is still as motherfucking loud as you’ll ever hear. That’s why I use it! =)

And in addition to the presents, I got about $1500 in monetary gifts, which to my thirteen-year-old self was a small fortune. I spent a bit of the money on frivolities and dainties, but I saved most of it in a locked red toolbox full of…whomever the hell it is on the $100 bill. Poor as I am, it’s been a while since I’ve seen one of those. Four years later I used half of the money to buy my first—and, to date, my only car: an old 1976 Plymouth Volare. That car was a real character. I owe that car some good times and the fondest of memories. And in 2000, one year after the car, I used the rest of the money to buy myself a computer, not only as a high-school graduation present but as a tool for my upcoming college life. Except for a different hard drive and an Ethernet card, that’s the same computer I’m using to type this very post.

I’ve come to believe that life is what you make of it. My Bar Mitzvah was an opportunity to do some growing up, to have an unforgettable experience, and to participate in something bigger than I was. In my heart of hearts, I was never truly religious in the sense that I understood and accepted the premise of God. When I was young I accepted, but I did not understand. When I was older I understood, but I did not accept. (If I can be forgiven to make such an audacious claim, the claim to understand God.) Whatever team I’m on, God is not my captain…never has been. Yet the richness of the Jewish community itself is undeniable. I am a better person because of experiences like the one I had on that day, ten years ago. I would not be who I am without this Jewish dimension to my character. And if God is the occasion who brings the Jewish community together, then I am grateful.

“Vus vet zayn” is Yiddish; the language historically spoken by Jews over the past centuries prior to the inception of the modern State of Israel. It means “What happens now?” and is the title of a klezmer song I like—klezmer being an eastern European genre of music which enjoys great popularity in Israel. The song asks this intriguing question of what will happen to the world once the Messiah finally arrives. But you and I don’t need to wait for the end of the world to find out what can become of us. In that sense, the question has a double meaning. We don’t know the fate of the world, but we have the opportunity to seek out a destiny, and, therein, to shape the fate of all things, for the world is that in which we all share.

Consequently, the flavor of life is in its nearness to our so-called “mundane” existence. Jews see themselves as very small, but with the potential to become very great. In that regard, our greatest dreams are always at arm’s length…here on Earth. And, once our worldly hours expire, we bequeath this unto our children. Unlike Christianity, Judaism focuses on this life, in this world, and our deeds as mortal beings of flesh and blood. To a Jew, corporeal life is more than some sad proving ground for the acceptance of a distant savior who might lift us up from our wretchedness. Nay, corporeal life—this life—is to be treasured. Humanity is a joy. And the corporeal world is a world fit to live in…a world worth keeping, worth exploring, worth perfecting—just as we ourselves are worth surpassing, and as is the human condition itself, across the generations, worth illuminating. Judaism suggests that we are greater than the angels because we can grow and learn, and become like God in this way, whereas the angels are forever fixed in form and nature. By living as mortal beings, we can achieve the sort of curiosity and zest for life, that brings true illumination into the soul. Humanity, rather than a pejorative for our weakness, is among the most joyous titles in the whole cosmic fugue. We may even find that immortality is a state of awareness more so than a state of persistence.

But in any event, Judaism requires no apocalypse, no everlasting state of sin. Judaism gives us the permission to love the moment, and to love the future, and to love ourselves and our power, which in turn leads us to the question of life in the here and now. So, looking back ten years into my past, I ask myself this question today…what happens now? And I consider both my life and the fate of the world together.

Judaism looks to improve the world, through prayer, repentance, and charity. Consider those words with an open mind, and my own goals are not so different. Certainly, I have a deeper fondness for sovereignty upon myself than many do, with a dash of vainglory thrown in for texture, but that’s just my way. The underlying ambition is much the same, so I like to think. How? Because the essence of Jewish faith, as I understand it, asks us to find our own way, and fashion our own destiny, with the help of God through the wisdom of God. In this sense, “God” is symbolic for always making the best choices, and always seizing the opportunities that come our way. Of course most branches of Judaism obviously still maintain that God is a separate entity, with its own divine identity, but perhaps that interpretation is behind the times. Perhaps, therein, lies the seed of Judaism’s success in the centuries to come—not as a ritualistic religion, but as a cultural glue with the worthy intention of surpassing ourselves…and becoming better people. Traditions die out, and customs change, but ideas can outlast the sun. Judaism has always adapted pretty well. And, considering what the Jewish people been through, from one generation to the next, it’s no wonder. As far as any religion goes, here is one with a future. All it has to do is reach out and take it.

Jewish faith is more elegant, in this way, than the harsh proselytizing religions that enjoy greater popularity but which restrict their followers’ freedom to think. Judaism, long the victim of a world full of bullies, has survived by fostering its own independence and seeking out the very best in human nature. Jews have achieved tremendous success in this way, by rising to meet the adversity in which they forever exist. That’s why, everywhere from Jon Stewart at The Daily Show to Leonard Nimoy in Star Trek, you will find Jews who have accomplished themselves richly in this society. I myself have become, not a star, but an intellect who knows what he is about. How many people can claim such abiding success in their lives? Too few, sadly. Jews aspire to succeed in this world because, through grim historical experience, they value appreciating both their plenty and their potential. And these values come from their families, cemented by their religious communities, whose common theme is the religion itself. These values are instilled nowadays through rituals like the B’nai Mitzvah, but are intentioned in the much more durable name of preserving the Jewish heritage in a world still teeming with those who would be hostile to the mere existence of even a single Jew. And the Jewish heritage is exactly representative of the answer to the question, Vus vet zayn? Still the butt of jokes even today, but for the most part free of bitterness at the rest of the world, Jews have succeeded in outlasting almost every culture that has ever opposed them. They have honorable goals for the outcome of humanity. They value this life. Step away from the orthodox nastiness of the extreme wings of the religion, and you’ll find Judaism to be an interpretation of life, the universe, and everything else, more so than a hardwired religion, and one with which I share more than a fringe of common ground.

While I cannot faithfully call myself Jewish even by those liberal standards, I bear little enmity for such a thoughtful enterprise. And I look back fondly, and proudly, at this piece of my identity. In more immediate, specific terms, this very reminiscence is also the answer to the question.

Radical_Dreamer

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Vus Vet Zayn?
« Reply #1 on: November 05, 2005, 02:21:52 am »
When I had my Bar Mitzvah, 8 years ago, my Temple was undergoing a time of transition. We had a wonderful Rabbi, and a Cantor with a voice you could not believe. But all was not well. There was a man who was hired to lead the school the Temple ran. He was a dick. Power hungry, too. My Bar Mitzvah was during his transition to power. He was up on that stage with me. Once, only once, in the many years I knew him, did he ever tell a joke. He pointed to a page of Hebrew text I'd never read before, and whispered "Ok, now you have to read this." Bastard. He later drove away the good Rabbi, and the Cantor, and in so doing, my family. In any event, it was quite the experience. There was a big police strike down the street, we could hear them shouting, asking for a woman who shares the name as my aunt, who was attending. What a day.

Burning Zeppelin

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« Reply #2 on: November 05, 2005, 03:23:45 am »
You forgot that ten years ago a little game called Chrono Trigger came out >.>
Much like my Atheist friends, you also exploit religious holidays :P (i know that you, or you might not of been atheist back then, but I just wanted to say. I also read your richness of the community part)
Unlike what other Muslims say, me and my family have nothing against Judaism, and what they did 1000s of years ago. We believe that they are good people, very pious and nice people. What I don't like about it is that it is more strict then Islam. Woah. Plus, I wouldn't convert to it. I'm already and Abrahamic religion. If anything I would become Atheist or Buddhist. But I don't get the not electricity on Saturday thing. When did they create this law, and who?
But are you still Jewish Lord J?
What is the HafTorah?
What a day, aye Radical Dreamer?

Radical_Dreamer

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« Reply #3 on: November 05, 2005, 05:56:24 pm »
Oh, quite a day. It was a lot of fun. Not all forms of Judiasim are more strict than Islam. There are Orthodox, Conservative, and Reform. I was raised Reform, which is the least strict of the three. Orthodox, though? Very, very strict. Somewhat...isolationist, as well, which is part of why you don't see evangelical Jews.

Burning Zeppelin

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« Reply #4 on: November 05, 2005, 10:43:10 pm »
But see, just as you are Abrahamic, so am I (I'm not sure if you are still Jewish or not). But Islam is just an updated version of Judaism and Christianity. So why not just...convert

Radical_Dreamer

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« Reply #5 on: November 05, 2005, 11:58:05 pm »
Quote from: Burning Zeppelin
But see, just as you are Abrahamic, so am I (I'm not sure if you are still Jewish or not). But Islam is just an updated version of Judaism and Christianity. So why not just...convert


Why convert? What do I gain? The trouble is, Islam is an update, but it's not recognized as being an extension of Judiaism. It's it's own religion, with different customs, different laws, and different beliefs. There's no logic that just because Islam is the youngest of the Abrahamic religions, that members of the other Abrahamic religions should just convert to get the "latest bit". That's silly.

Lord J Esq

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« Reply #6 on: November 06, 2005, 01:23:52 am »
Quote from: Burning Zeppelin
You forgot that ten years ago a little game called Chrono Trigger came out >.>

Golly! So I did. I humbly submit myself for tarring, feathering, and, if there's time, more tarring.

Quote from: Burning Zeppelin
Much like my Atheist friends, you also exploit religious holidays :P (i know that you, or you might not of been atheist back then, but I just wanted to say. I also read your richness of the community part)

I'm not sure what you mean by "exploit religious holidays." I enjoy the so-called "holiday spirit," if that's what you mean.
 
Quote from: Burning Zeppelin
Unlike what other Muslims say, me and my family have nothing against Judaism, and what they did 1000s of years ago. We believe that they are good people, very pious and nice people.

There are many Jews out there who could really stand to hear words like that. But I don't need to hear it myself. I am not an apologist for Judaism. The only reason I don't focus my attention on it like I do Christianity and Islam is that it's such a tiny religion, it isn't nearly as fanatical, and, most importantly of all, it doesn't proselytize.

Quote from: Burning Zeppelin
What I don't like about it is that it is more strict then Islam. Woah.

The Jewish ultraorthodox are contemptible in some of their customs and beliefs. But even they are nowhere near as purely evil as main mainstream Christian and Muslim societies. You're welcome to disagree, but in light of overwhelming evidence of the crimes against humanity committed even today by those two religions, I'm not going to take your disagreement seriously. Let's just agree to disagree rather than argue about it.

Quote from: Burning Zeppelin
But I don't get the not electricity on Saturday thing. When did they create this law, and who?

The sabbath is a day of rest. Therefore, no work is to be done on this day. In modern times, many orthodox and some conservative Jews have interpreted this to mean that electrical appliances cannot be manipulated, electrical circuits cannot be altered, and electrical machinery cannot be employed. Thus, if you turn on a light before the sabbath begins, you have to leave it alone until the sabbath ends. Same thing if the light is off. Likewise, you can't use dishwashers or drive cars. I remind you, this is a practice you will only find in the more orthodox domains of the religion. Most Jews--especially in America--have less austere interpretations.

Quote from: Burning Zeppelin
But are you still Jewish Lord J?

Nope. It surprises me just how often I'll talk about some Jewish aspect of my past, and people will start thinking of me as Jewish. I'm not Jewish today and, in a strict sense, I never was. But that doesn't mean I don't appreciate the positive influence that some of these Jewish experiences have had on me.

Quote from: Burning Zeppelin
What is the HafTorah?

Haf'Torah is a text selected from the books of Nevi'im ("The Prophets") that is read publicly in the synagogue after the reading of the Torah on each Sabbath, as well as on Jewish festivals and fast days. The haftarah usually has a thematic link to the Torah reading that precedes it. You can read more about it at Wikipedia's entry for Haftara.

~~~
By the way, thank you, Radical Dreamer, for your thoughtful reply. I wasn't actually expecting any of those. So...in you we have a left-handed liberal with a Jewish background who lives in Seattle and has a soft spot for all things Chrono. You have got to be my long-lost twin or something...

Radical_Dreamer

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« Reply #7 on: November 06, 2005, 07:02:50 pm »
Quote from: Lord J esq
By the way, thank you, Radical Dreamer, for your thoughtful reply. I wasn't actually expecting any of those. So...in you we have a left-handed liberal with a Jewish background who lives in Seattle and has a soft spot for all things Chrono. You have got to be my long-lost twin or something...


Also born and raised in Cali.

Burning Zeppelin

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« Reply #8 on: November 07, 2005, 02:43:54 am »
By exploit, i mean my friend who is a clear atheist (or agnostic?) but still recieves christmas presents and the like.
My friend told me a story of these Jewish kids who were going to their Synagogue but had to wait for someone else to press the crosswalk button. That was, you know, funny...
But hey, what are these Crimes against Humanity you speak of? Are these just normal laws that you believe are crimes because they contradict your point of view?

Lord J Esq

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« Reply #9 on: November 07, 2005, 03:02:41 am »
Quote from: Burning Zeppelin
By exploit, i mean my friend who is a clear atheist (or agnostic?) but still recieves christmas presents and the like.
My friend told me a story of these Jewish kids who were going to their Synagogue but had to wait for someone else to press the crosswalk button. That was, you know, funny...

If you're asking whether I'll still sit down and eat a big ol' turkey leg on Thanksgiving, or gratefully accept Christmas as a paid holiday where I can sleep in rather than get up for work, the answer is yes! I enjoy the secular holidays, many of the Jewish holidays, and some of the mainstream Christian ones. And, yes, I like to give and receive presents during the winter holiday season. Enjoying the holidays is hardly reserved for religious people. I think there should be more holidays in the year!

Quote from: Burning Zeppelin
But hey, what are these Crimes against Humanity you speak of? Are these just normal laws that you believe are crimes because they contradict your point of view?

I'm not gonna get into this. If you don't see a problem with the religious customs of places like Saudi Arabia and rural Mississippi, I'm not going to be the one who persuades you to wake up.

~~~
Quote from: Radical_Dreamer
Also born and raised in Cali.

Golly! What part? I was born in Los Angeles, but spent most of my childhood in the desert about 100 miles northeast.

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« Reply #10 on: November 07, 2005, 06:16:17 pm »
Quote from: Lord J esq
Quote from: Radical_Dreamer
Also born and raised in Cali.

Golly! What part? I was born in Los Angeles, but spent most of my childhood in the desert about 100 miles northeast.


The various cities on the west side of Los Angeles.

Lord J Esq

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« Reply #11 on: November 07, 2005, 09:56:21 pm »
If this were an RPG, we really would be long lost siblings. And we'd prolly have two halves of an ancient crystal orb...